Les Musiciens du métro

As metro stations go, Châtelet is probably one of the worst. It is a dirty, busy labyrinth of a station. It is also one I regularly pass through on Tuesday evenings.

Châtelet’s one saving grace at around 7pm on a Tuesday is an opera singer called Christophe Ménager, who for some years now has been putting on very entertaining performances. Even in the unpleasant setting that is Châtelet, it’s enough to make you wish you didn’t have somewhere to be.

Mr Ménager is able to offer such animated performances thanks to Les Musiciens du métro. In 1997 RATP, the Parisian public transport operator, founded Espace Métro Accords (EMA). Every six months, EMA holds auditions for those who wish to become part of Les Musiciens du métro and as such to gain authorisation to perform in Parisian metro stations.

Since its inception EMA has received more than 10 000 applications, organised over 4000 auditions and accredited more than 3000 artists. An article on the RATP website points out that “the musicians you meet in metro stations are a reflection of metro passengers: all styles, ages, rhythms and nations are represented.”

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The French Presidential Election: A Lesson in Wooden Language

Today the French go to the polls for the first round of a hotly contested presidential election. Build-up has been scarred by corruption, petty squabbles and a lack of clarity in terms of policies.

It has, however, been quite the spectacle when it comes to langue de bois, a French expression of which the literal English translation is wooden language. It means to talk without saying anything; to use vague and ambiguous rhetoric in order to divert attention from the issue at hand.

Langue de bois is an essential skill in the political sphere, and one France’s presidential candidates have mastered. For all aspiring politicians, here are some great examples I’ve heard in recent weeks; a selection of langue de bois best practices that will stand you in good stead for a career in politics.

“Ça veut dire quoi ? Ça veut dire…” / “What does that mean? It means…”

Avoid talking about how you will address an issue by defining said issue, just in case anybody isn’t sure. “Unemployment – what does that mean? It means thousands of people being out of work…”

“Problèmes de fond” / “Core problems”

Deflect your interlocutor’s point or question by referring back to the “core problems” that need addressing first. “How do you plan to reduce public spending?” “First of all I think it’s important to address the core problems…” When identifying core problems, stick to sweeping statements audiences have heard before, such as “our citizens have lost faith in the current government” and “the people of this country need policies that will make a difference to them”.

“Je suis un homme / une femme politique, je pense à mon pays, je veux des solutions pour mon pays” / “I’m a politician, I think about my country, I want solutions for my country”

When in doubt, re-emphasise your dedication to your country and the fact that you want solutions for your country. There is, of course, no need to clarify those solutions.

“Elire un président, c’est comme élire l’entraineur d’une équipe de foot. Je serai le meilleur entraineur” / “Electing a president is like electing the coach of a football team. I will be the best coach”

Beat around the bush by using a dodgy metaphor. This may or may not be related to sport.

“Elire un président, c’est élire quelqu’un qui va présider pour les cinq années à venir” / “Electing a president means electing somebody who is going to preside for the next five years”

Stuck for a sufficiently dodgy metaphor? Keep it simple and explain what electing a president actually means – just so people are clear on that when they go to the polls. If nothing else, this is a great way of demonstrating that you know the difference between a noun and a verb.


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Tales of Dirty Bertie in Two Cities

Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Birth of the Modern City and Dirty Bertie, an English King Made in France are two books that examine the same period of history in very different ways. Both explore the development of Paris and London from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century and, in particular, the mutual influence the two cities had on each other as they were ‘coming of age’. But while Tales of Two Cities examines the relationship between Paris and London, Dirty Bertie is an exploration of the relationship one man – King Edward VII – had with France and, in particular, with Parisian society.

Tales of Two Cities by Jonathan Conlin provides a fascinating insight into the development of Paris and London. Amongst other things, the book looks at the invention of the apartment building, the gradual establishment of dining out as an acceptable social activity, music hall and dancing culture, and the construction of large-scale suburban cemeteries. Conlin demonstrates that though there are many things we consider quintessentially French, or downright British, the reality of how those things came to be is rarely so clear-cut. For example, he explains that “the dance known in France today as ‘French cancan’ […] was a fusion of Parisian cancan and London skirt dancing, evolving as performers travelled between the two cities, adapting their routines to suit what they thought were local tastes.”

Dirty Bertie is written by Stephen Clarke and is the first book of his I have read, though A Year in the Merde and 1000 Years of Annoying the French are on my list, too. Dotted with highly amusing jibes at the French (“And [Bertie] understood the French character – they were always at their most aggressive just before letting themselves be seduced.”), the book tells the story of the young (and not so young) King Edward VII’s exploits with Parisian actresses, aristocrats and ladies of the night, as well as his lifelong love of all things French; of how he defied his mother (Queen Victoria) and, later, simply disregarded his wife (Queen Alexandra) by pursuing a series of mistresses and developing a strong playboy reputation. The book also casts a favourable, almost certainly exaggerated, light on Bertie’s involvement in diplomacy. If Clarke is to be believed, Bertie was instrumental in the signing of the entente cordiale in 1904 and, had he still been on the throne in 1914, the First World War could have been avoided. Not sure about that one.

I read Dirty Bertie straight after Tales of Two Cities, which turned out to be an inspired decision. Though Clarke and Conlin take very different approaches to Anglo-French relations, there are many overlaps and I found myself drawing a lot of parallels between the two. For example, the social joints described in Tales of Two Cities are the very places Edward VII is seen frequenting in Dirty Bertie; the Haussmannization of Paris examined in detail by Conlin is also the backdrop to many of Bertie’s visits to Paris, described by Clarke. Both books also deal with the grimier nature of nineteenth-century Paris and as such have a lot in common with Luc Sante’s The Other Side of Paris. An unlikely yet surprisingly complementary pairing, these two books have provided me with an entertaining look at Paris’ relationship with London and, of course, with Edward VII, the most Francophile of all British monarchs.

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